We should not be surprised

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Paul Sayers, partner at Sayers and Partners LLP and senior fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, as well as associate advisor for floods and droughts at WWF, explores the steps we must take towards a flood resilient society.

The UK government has a vision to provide “an infrastructure network that is resilient to today’s natural hazards and prepared for the future changing climate”. Despite many notable advances and progress towards this goal, recent flood events (2013-14 and 2015-16) demonstrate we are still some way from achieving it. 

But let’s be clear, ‘resilience to flooding’ does not equate to ‘defended from flooding’. It does mean, however, consequences are limited when flood events occur. As set out by the chief scientist in 2015, to be successful as a society we need to learn to manage risk and not simply seek to avoid it: a philosophical and practical impossibility in the context of flood risk. 

So how can we move towards a flood resilient society? We must be both smarter and more realistic as to what good flood risk management really costs. 

Our approach to the analysis of extremes must change 

We should not be surprised when ‘unprecedented events’ occur. They are not that rare, and are getting less rare. The 2013-14 winter floods emphasised (as in 2007) the need to consider flooding from multiple sources (pluvial/rain, fluvial/river, coastal, groundwater). They also highlighted the importance of storm sequences, as witnessed at Dawlish in Devon when the railway line failed in response to repeat storms. Taken together with the evidence from the most recent storms of 2015-16, we must accept that the notion of a single design storm died along within the assumption of stationarity some time ago. There is now no excuse not to consider the temporal sequencing and the spatial coherence of storms as well as the influence of climate change in our analysis of a full range of extremes. We know these issues are important. 

Our approach to managing run-off and flows must change 

We should not be surprised when rivers make use of the floodplain. In 2004, Defra’s ‘Making space for water’ programme identified the need to take a ‘whole catchment approach’, but few examples exist in practice. Collectively we must embrace the concept of working with natural processes (to slow the flood where possible, speed it where necessary) in a way that delivers multiple benefits for individuals, business and the environment. 

Traditional defences were designed to be more adaptable. They are part of this, but only part. We need to seek hybrid solutions that combine ‘grey’ and ‘green’ infrastructure to limit run-off, provide storage to disrupt flood peaks, and protect communities, critical infrastructure and services. 

Our approach to planning is too restricted, too siloed, and must change. We should not be surprised when communities are angry in the aftermath of a flood. They have often been given little opportunity (and little information) to truly co-develop the ‘solutions’ used to protect them and feel little ownership. Due to the overly narrow remit of flood risk management (focusing on short term, easily described benefits) communities are often consulted upon a short list of specific flood defence scheme options only. 

A new approach is needed: one that leads to long-term landscape scale solutions. This requires a step change in the way we bring together urban and rural development whilst safeguarding and promoting natural capital. 

This will allow a broader range of trade-offs to feature in the discussion and enable innovative solutions to be co-developed, co-funded and implemented. In addition to appropriately designing and maintaining flood defences and continuing to improve warning systems, this will increasingly include paying landowners to add temporary upstream storage, encouraging spatial planners to actively reduce risk (not just avoid increasing it), and ensuring the most vulnerable can access affordable insurance and property level grants. Small-scale case studies and pilots are emerging in support of this view but these need to be scaled up and mainstreamed.

This strategic approach to flood risk management is a more ambitious endeavour than traditional flood management. Perhaps most importantly, it requires greater effort to join up actions; in space (from local to national); in time (from short to long term); in governance (communities, government departments, private and public investment etc). Can we do better? Yes we can.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email

/Tell us what you think – have your say below or


Tom Oxley   29/02/2016 at 14:47

A few years ago I created a simulation exercise which considered the themes you speak about. A town in North Yorkshire generously worked with my then company (Aviva) to simulate and stimulate discussion which was infused into the local flood plan. You can read about it here: (on the website of one of the agencies who helped produce the event.)

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